FOXBORO — We don't know if N'Keal Harry will be deemed ready for action this weekend against the Ravens. We don't know if he'll be activated to the 53-man roster by next week's deadline before he's sent back to injured reserve.
But if Bill Belichick's first-round pick last spring is on the field in Baltimore, his presence could make an immediate impact. Not only would Harry give the Patriots a physical presence at receiver, but he might give them the flexibility to change the geometry of their offense. He might allow them to roll with more spread looks.
Backwards as it sounds, the team that relied on heavy formations and a physical running game in its run to a championship less than a year ago might be better off moving forward as more of a spread offense.
This year's offensive unit is of course constructed very differently from the one that won New England's sixth Lombardi Trophy. The offensive line is without David Andrews and Trent Brown. The tight end position has been torn down and rebuilt with spare parts. As a result, with the same key backfield pieces from a year ago, they've been a much less efficient running team.
They average 3.23 yards per carry, which is third-to-last in the league. They're 20th in rush efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus has them graded as their No. 24 rush offense. PFF says the Patriots don't have a tight end who grades out better than the 62nd run-blocker at the position, and even that player, Matt LaCosse, has only played in four games this season.
Those heavy personnel groupings that served the Patriots so well late last season have seen a dip in their effectiveness. They're running for just 3.5 yards per carry out of their two-back, one tight end (21-personnel) looks, according to Sharp Football Stats. They have a 43 percent success rate from their one-back, two tight end (12-personnel) packages when the league average this season is 48 percent. And their "20" package with two backs and three receivers has been arguably their worst grouping this season, averaging 4.2 yards per pass attempt and 3.1 yards per rush.
The Patriots have generally been at their best when they've gone lighter this season.
The league's most popular personnel grouping — 11 personnel, with three receivers, one back and one tight end — has been kind to them. They have a 48 percent success rate with that grouping, better than the league average (46 percent success), and a 94.6 quarterback rating when passing from that look.
But arguably their most efficient personnel grouping has been a decidedly "spread" look, with four receivers, one back and no tight ends. This is known as "10 personnel," and the Patriots have a 114.8 quarterback rating when using it. They also sport a 7.6 yards per attempt figure (slightly better than their 7.3 mark out of "11"), and a 58 percent success rate, easily exceeding the league average (45 percent success).
That four-receiver grouping is used relatively sparingly across the NFL. The Patriots actually have used it more than every other offense in the league this season except for one — the Cardinals use it 42 percent of the time under Kliff Kingsbury — and only eight percent of their plays have been out of "10."
Still, it looks like McDaniels and the Patriots have warmed up to using that package more and more when it gets their best players on the field.
The last two weeks, with tight end depth hurt by injury and no true fullbacks on the roster, the Patriots have upped their use of "10" from zero percent in Week 6, to 11 percent in Week 7, to 18 percent in Week 8. In Week 2, with Antonio Brown in the lineup, the Patriots went with their four-receiver look nine percent of the time.
What Harry's addition could mean is that what might be the team's strongest skill position group in terms of talent would get even stronger. With the first-round rookie available, Tom Brady would have five pro-caliber receivers to throw to: Harry, Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu and Jakobi Meyers. If James White were the running back in a formation that included Harry, Edelman, Dorsett and Sanu, that — at least on paper — looks like it could be a pretty potent group of pass-catchers.
And for a team that hasn't been able to run the ball with any sort of consistency this year, that type of grouping may be Brady's best bet at moving the ball down the field.
We're a long way from 2007, but we know Brady still has more than enough ability to pick apart a defense out of the spread. According to Sharp, Brady has a 76.2 completion percentage from a clean pocket, which is sixth-best in the NFL this season. That number drops significantly when he's under pressure (32.9 percent completions, 33rd in the NFL), but Brady, believe it or not, has only been under pressure on 29.5 percent of his dropbacks, per Sharp. Only five quarterbacks have been pressured less often.
Add it all up, and if you're the Patriots, you might be more willing to take the occasional wayward throw under pressure — as long as pressure isn't getting home consistently — than you would ramming your head up against a wall in the run game.
The Patriots wouldn't bail completely on their ground attack, even if they do decided to utilize more spread formations as their receiver group gets deeper. But they might be willing to de-emphasize the run game in the name of efficiency.
Here's what McDaniels told NFL Films following last season when describing the identity shift his offense went through late in the year.
"One of the things that I'm so thoroughly impressed with Bill on," McDaniels told NFL Films, "is his ability to adapt and evolve. He said, 'If you keep holding onto what you'd rather be — no huddle, spread formations, 34 points a game — then you're probably going to end up regretting a lot of things at the end of the year.'
"What are we really good at? What's the most consistent part of our team offensively? And then you commit to it. We had been a pretty decent running football team. It was something we felt like our personnel fit.
"It's gonna be I-formation, running a lead play, gaining six yards. Line up. Do it again. You gotta be content trying to win this way because this is the way we can win. I think our team really embraced that. We were adaptable."
The question now is will the Patriots embrace going in the opposite direction if the evidence continues to pile up that they're better off spreading teams out and throwing than they are going ground-and-pound?
It would put a lot on the right shoulder of their 42-year-old quarterback. It would put Brady in harm's way more often. And for a team that would like to have balance, for a team that needs its quarterback upright, a pass-happy approach complicates the what's-best-for-the-football-team calculus.
But as the Patriots see more potent offenses during the next portion of their schedule, and as their defense could have trouble keeping scores in the low-teens week after week, Brady and his offensive teammates might have to find an extra gear.
If Harry is available, that could mean going with four or five wide more consistently and letting Brady peck, peck, peck away at what he's given.
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